Dr. Bonnie Bergin was the originator of the service dog concept. She founded the world’s first service dog agency 25 years ago. She has devoted her life to her work, training service dogs for disabled people. She has a heart for the disabled as well as teens growing up with the many challenges of peer pressure, alcohol, drugs, and violence.
In 1991, Dr. Bergin started the Assistance Dog Institute so that further research could be done. Her goal was to produce a better service dog. Two years later she began an innovative program called the High-Schooled Assistance Dog Program. Her idea was to show at-risk teenagers how to train the service dogs. This, to her, was a win-win situation because she could serve two distinct groups at one time. Her idea, though unique, has been hugely successful. Today there are 10 such programs operating around the country due to Dr. Bergin’s efforts in Rohnert Park. There are also programs functioning in Israel because of the innovations of Dr. Bergin and the High School Assistance Dog Program.
The High School Assistance Dog Program pairs troubled teens who are incarcerated or in a group home – often on probation – with a golden retriever. They have daily sessions in the instruction of service dog commands. These are children who have committed crimes against the community, but they are now giving back to their community by training service dogs for disabled people. The teens gain increased self-esteem, communication skills, and anger management, as well as the unconditional love of their dog. The disabled person gets much needed help for their independence, as well as a new friend. At graduation, the teen hands over the dog to its disabled recipient in an emotional ceremony. Although they miss their dog, they are very proud of the good job they have done. The person who gets the dog is always very grateful and appreciative of their efforts.
The teens frequently volunteer extra hours each day to work around the facility. They assist in socializing the new puppies, grooming the dogs, and doing facility maintenance and clean up. Demonstrations of the dog’s 89 commands as well as answering questions about the training process are about of the public demonstrations in which the teens participate. The teens have these demonstrations for schools and businesses.
Dr. Bergin is paid $1,200 monthly by the Sonoma County Departments of Education and Probation to provide this class to the teenagers. She works an average of 14 hours per day; often she works longer days. Dr. Bergin always goes above and beyond the call of duty to perfect her work. Her priority is the teenagers, and she devotes her time and energy to helping them reach their goals and fulfill the potential she knows they have to become more productive citizens. Dr. Bergin provides the children with job references, consults with a psychiatrist on the best ways to work with them, and provides many other opportunities for these children who generally come from troubled families.
The mission of the agency she founded is “Helping Dogs Help People,” and she does this in many ways. With her help, the at-risk teens learn about helping others, too.